Horace, the unshaven truck-driver, squinted at his new passenger as he scrambled into his cab. He looked vaguely familiar.
Horace's wife was always asking him not to pick up hitch-hikers, especially scruffy ones.
But this bloke was well dressed. In fact, he was carrying a brief case rather than a knapsack and looked like he had been standing on the roadside for a long, long time.
Besides, Horace - Horry to his friends - felt he could do with some company. He had been driving all night.
"G'day mate," he said cheerfully. "Where you goin'?"
"Um ... Canberra," said the grateful passenger. "You going that far?"
"Sure," said the driver, extending a hand. "The name's Horry."
"Er, ... John," said the hitch-hiker, shaking hands. "Always glad to meet a fellow great Australian."
"I thought you looked familiar!" said Horry, casting an eye to his real view mirror to check it was safe to pull out again. "You're John HOWARD, aren't you?"
"Er, John Howard? The actor?" said the man.
"No, John Howard, the prime minister. I've seen you on TV. You're even shorter than I thought you'd be."
"No, you must be mistaken," chuckled the passenger. "Oh good golly yes. Why would the prime minister of Australia be hitching a lift?"
"Well, John Curtin used to," said the truck driver, on the road again and changing up through his gears, clunk, clunk, clunk. "I was reading about it the other day. He wanted to save on the cost of running a Commonwealth Car. He used to hitch-hike from Perth to his office in Fremantle. Or maybe it was the other way 'round. Or perhaps it wasn't even him. Maybe it was Malcolm Fraser or Gough Whitlam."
"I would not know," the hitch-hiker repeated. "I told you, I am not John Howard. I'm John, er, um, Smith.
"Maybe it was Billy Hughes?" said the driver, passing cars now. "Or that bloke who went missing in the sea. What was his name? Harold Holt? Wasn't there a rumour that he actually hitched a ride with a Chinese submarine?"
"I have not got a clue," said the man. "I'm just a humble hitch-biker."
"Maybe it was Robert Menzies?" said Horry.
"It DEFINITELY was NOT him," said the little hitch-hiker. "And if it someone says they saw him, they are being reckless with the truth in the extreme. Either that or it was only Max Gillies dressed up as Sir Robert Menzies."
"Max Gillies, the comedian?" said Horry.
"Yes," said the hitch-hiker. "I don't know what makes him think he can paste on some bushy eyebrows and impersonate everry decent hitch-hiker this country has ever had."
"Ah, so you ARE John Howard?" said Horry.
"No, I'm NOT," said the hitchhiker. "My name is NOT John Winston Howard and I give the commitment that it will not be John Howard at any time in the future. It is counter to my core and non-core policy. AND they don't call me Honest John for nothing."
"Oh, okay," said the driver. "I must be mistaken. The road plays funny tricks on your mind. I've been driving all the way from Cairns and I've only had a few hours sleep.
"You don't see many hitch-hikers on the road between Sydney and Canberra any more so I was pretty glad for the company, even if you're not the prime minister."
They drove for two more hours, scarely exchanging another word.
The hitch-hiker wanted to talk about cricket, but Horry said he did not follow it.
As Horry changed down through the gears on the outskirts of Canberra, he asked: "So where can I drop you, John?"
"Anywhere that's convenient," said the well-dressed hitch-hiker, gathering his briefcase from the floor and straightening his tie. "Are you going anywhere near Parliament House?"
©November 29, 2001 John Martin. All Rights Reserved
If you liked this short column perhaps you'll like my new comic fiction novel, which has nearly 250 pages of laughs. Check out the first chapter here free